Will.i.am: the player
Will.i.am likes to talk. I mean, really talk. Almost six hours after I walk through the door of his music studio in Hollywood he is still going strong, stream-of-consciousness style, riffing about gamma rays, light spectrum ranges and how a sound recording is actually a captured echo. It is frazzling, mildly exhausting and yet he shows no signs of tiring, maintaining his energy with sips of a vile-looking green concoction (kale juice, he informs me later) and snacking on nuts and dried fruit.
Los Angeles has a rich recorded music history and there was a time not too long ago when the city’s many studios were chock-full of riotous rockers imbibing bowls of illegal drugs, rather than bowls of almonds and dried cranberries. But these are healthier times: pop music has changed in myriad ways, not least in the increasingly close relationship it has with business and marketing. The flag bearer for this new era, the embodiment of the 21st-century pop star, is will.i.am.
The Black Eyed Peas frontman, born William Adams Jr, is a 37-year-old technology-obsessed rapper, producer, actor, DJ and singer who has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide and won a hatful of Grammy awards. He has used his musical stardom in political activism and became a potent force in the 2008 US presidential election campaign after recording “Yes We Can”, a musical interpretation of a speech by Barack Obama which attracted 24 million views on YouTube, coalescing younger voters behind the Democratic candidate. He is the boy who grew up in the east Los Angeles housing projects and became a star, giving £500,000 of his own money to the Prince’s Trust to be spent on science and engineering programmes in Brixton and east London. He says he is obsessed with innovation and the future, and if you doubt him, consider this: in 2008 he appeared on CNN “via hologram” to talk about the election. And on August 28, one of his compositions, “Reach for the Stars”, was beamed back to earth from the Curiosity rover on Mars, thanks to a relationship he has with Nasa.
But it is his interest in business, branding and marketing that makes him much more than a hip-hop and dance music producer with a natty sartorial style (today he is wearing a grey Vivienne Westwood suit) and a knack for crafting catchy hooks. As I discover over the course of the afternoon, nothing seems to energise him like his business work, whether it’s his role as “director of creative innovation” at Intel, his willingness to approach brands, pitching them ideas for new concepts, or his realisation at the turn of the millennium that, as record sales began to be ravaged by file sharing, business and music could fuel each other. “What makes me effective is music as a vehicle to travel the world and see behaviour and culture,” he says, munching on a handful of nuts. “Then I can use that to make songs and apply it to business practice. If I got rid of the music part then I become one of the guys in a suit that I think are ineffective.”
It is a hot day when I arrive at the studio, a short distance from La Brea Avenue in the heart of Hollywood. It is not a particularly salubrious area – “Don’t leave anything of value in your car,” Will’s publicist warns me – and there are a few shady-looking characters lounging in a doorway a few buildings away. But when I step inside the office door the air conditioning kicks in, the temperature drops and I am led into the studio.
A beat is pounding from huge, wall-mounted speakers as I look around the room. There are four flat-screen TVs suspended above a huge mixing desk; in front of it sits Will, hunched over a laptop, his back to me. After a few seconds he starts bouncing in the chair in time to the beat, eyes closed, a big grin on his face, his fists pumping the air as a bass line reverberates through the studio. Suddenly, he kills the music and comes over to the sofa where I am sitting, a serious, rather intense expression on his face. “That’s irony right there,” he says after we shake hands, pointing to the buttons, knobs and flashing lights of the mixing desk, which looks like the deck of the Starship Enterprise. This, he explains, is because he barely uses the mixing desk, preferring to record his tracks on his laptop. So why come to the studio at all?
“It’s the tuning of the room. If you’ve made the music on the laptop, it gets sent on a laptop, to be heard on a laptop [so] why do you need to be in a room that has tuning if everyone is listening on shitty speakers? A musician’s argument would be because I’m making club music. You don’t want to be making laptop-quality sound without ever playing it in tuned rooms if you’re making club music.”
He developed his love of music listening to hip-hop and house music, immersing himself in the early 1990s Los Angeles rave scene. His schoolfriends included Pasquale Rotella, founder of the Electric Daisy Carnival – the biggest electronic music festival in America – and Redfoo (also known as Stefan Kendal Gordy), half of chart-topping dance act LMFAO. They met at school in Brentwood, a wealthy district of Los Angeles, but he did not live in the area, being one of the children to be bussed in every morning from the other side of the city.
He was raised by his mother in a deprived east Los Angeles area where crime and drugs were rife. “She knew she had to send me to a better school,” he says. The Magnet programme in the Los Angeles school district offered some salvation: originally created to ensure racial and ethnic integration it meant he could go to a better school out of the area. But his school was far away and he had to wake up at five every day to catch a bus, which took 90 minutes to cross the city. “Sometimes I would miss breakfast and when you’re on food stamps and lunch tickets, missing breakfast is not good for a kid.”
California’s ongoing fiscal woes could spell trouble for the Magnet programme, he says. “The first place they cut budgets is the buses for the Magnet programmes and there will be fewer people to have opportunities to turn out like me. If there was a poster child for the success of the Magnet programme, I would be that kid.” He puts on a gruff, drill sergeant voice – one of many impressions during our interview. “Just how effective was Magnet?” he barks. “Look at that guy!”
“The Magnet programme brought about culture exchange so a person from the ghetto could do the Queen’s jubilee and collaborate with Prince Charles,” he says, referring to his activities in the UK this year. “Magnet meant a guy from the ghetto ended up doing the Democratic National Convention and playing the [presidential] inauguration. I would never have seen what the world was like … I would be stuck thinking the world was the five miles of my surrounding area.”
As soon as he could afford to, he moved his family, switching east Los Angeles for a Jewish area in the San Fernando Valley. “I moved my mom, cousins, my uncles and my grandma. I moved them to the Valley to be near the rabbis. It was either drive-bys or rabbis. I picked the rabbis.”
He credits his mother with keeping him away from temptation in his youth, but he says the odds were stacked against him. “There’s a family of influences that dictate behaviour. In the ghetto, there’s a liquor store, a cheque-cashing place and a motel. What that tells you psychologically is: get a cheque, cash it. Take a couple of steps. Buy some liquor and get drunk, go home and get kicked out of your house. And here’s a place to sleep along the way.”
I laugh and he looks at me sternly. “It may sound funny, but if you live in a good neighbourhood, you drive home and there’s a bank, there’s a grocery store and big houses – but there’s no motels. What that tells you psychologically is: you protect your money and buy good things for your family to eat in your nice big house. So it’s a different system. You go to the ghetto and it’s full of billboards. You go to nice neighbourhoods and there are no billboards. These brands are marketing to people that can’t afford the products. You don’t see big billboards in Beverly Hills. They market to people who don’t have money.”
I ask him why he thinks companies do that. “Aspiration. They become aspirational products so there’s a desire there with the people that can afford them. So you market in the ’hood.” He affects a straight-laced white-guy-in-a-suit voice. “‘But they can’t afford our products!’ But they’re going to want your products.”
Will.i.am knows how to make people want to buy products. Start with music: he created a group that struck gold by creating its own new niche in hip-hop at the end of the 1990s, an unthreatening, multi-ethnic act with rhymes and catchy tunes that shied away from gangster rap and built a following in California by relentlessly playing college campuses. “Our theory was: let’s own California. Let’s play Berkeley, let’s play Stanford, let’s play UCLA, let’s play USC. Let’s play all the colleges so every single college kid knows us and let’s create that buzz. And then we got a [record] deal.”
A bidding war followed and the Black Eyed Peas eventually signed with Universal Music’s Interscope label. The band’s first album, Behind the Front, was a modest success. “We made a record in 1998, and then we toured. Then we made another record in 1999. The cycle was faster then. Fast, fast, fast. But then we put out our second record and this thing called Napster came along and everybody got our record for free.”
The file-sharing service upended the music industry: sales began a decade-long decline and have only recently shown signs of recovery (ironically Will would become friends with Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder and early Facebook investor). But the impact of the file-sharing site caused him to think differently about the music business. Touring became more important, he says. “Although nobody bought the record like they bought the first record, we toured and sold out more venues than we sold records.”
In 2002, the group was offered a commercial for Dr Pepper. It turned out to be a pivotal moment. “I realised I made more money doing a 30-second piece of music than two hours worth of music.” He maintains that the Peas had complete creative control over the commercial. “If you are in control of the video, which we were, if you are in control of the clothes, the song, which we were … what’s not to like? And the people are getting the music for free anyway … so who cares? And in turn, a product was sold. I don’t participate in the product being sold.”
Working with large companies was once the antithesis of rock and pop music. That changed as bands took sponsors for tours and lent their music to commercials, yet Will is clearly defensive about being labelled a “sell-out”. “A sell-out means selling outside the circle of products you’re supposed to sell. And the products you’re supposed to sell [in the music industry] are CDs and CD players.”
Warming to his theme, he says working with brands is no different from the other commercial activities that take place within the music industry. “I make a song, it gets played on the radio, people go and buy it. Then I play the Staples Center [in Los Angeles].” Staples, an office supply chain, sponsors the stadium that is the home of the Los Angeles Lakers. “What does Staples have to do with basketball or concerts? People will get mad at me if the ticket prices are high, so I bring in a sponsor which means the fans pay less and we can tour. And while we are there, beverages are sold, parking tickets are sold. If people are coming in their cars then gasoline is sold. It’s one big system just for people to come see a concert. And we’re the ones who get ridiculed for wanting to keep that cycle going to sell other products. I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous.”
He is a consummate marketer. When Jimmy Iovine and the hip-hop star Dr. Dre launched Beats by Dr. Dre, a line of über-cool headphones beloved by sports stars, club kids and musicians, they turned to Will: he is an adviser and investor in the company and wore a prototype pair around his neck on an appearance with Larry King alongside Maya Angelou to discuss the election of Barack Obama.
Since the Dr Pepper commercial he has thrown himself into an array of commercial deals and partnerships, working with companies ranging from Coors to BlackBerry to Best Buy. These are rarely straight endorsement deals and increasingly he makes the first move, contacting a company with an idea for a concept or marketing plan. In 2011, the Peas played the Super Bowl half-time show, one of the biggest gigs of the year for any band, given the huge exposure offered by being part of the most-watched event on television. The Who had played the year before, but the sight of the ageing rockers jumping around the stage did not do much for younger audiences. So Will approached the NFL.
“I said: ‘Hey guys, you should think about having a current group perform this year.’ They said: ‘Yeah we had some complications with current groups in the past,’” a nod to Janet Jackson’s notorious “wardrobe malfunction” of a few years earlier.
“I said, ‘We’re a little different.’”
They loved his pitch. Realising he had a unique platform with his Super Bowl appearance, he also appeared in two commercials and persuaded the Fox network, which broadcast the game, to sell him airtime for the ad slots before and after his appearance. “They said they were sold out. I said, ‘Well you guys aren’t really sold out. You should sell me those spots at a premium because you could use the Peas’ performance as a case study. A performer has never been connected to the bookending spots. You can sell that spot to a brand at a higher premium.’”
Fox agreed. So not only did he appear in the Super Bowl half-time show, he was in the ads that bookended his appearance. “It gets even crazier dude,” he says, firing up his computer and finding the appearance on YouTube. “Watch this.”
As the Super Bowl performance starts with a rousing rendition of “I Gotta Feeling”, he explains that he asked the NFL if it could build a stage that spelled out “Black Eyed Peas”. “They said: ‘We cannot allow a logo of any kind.’” So he asked if they could build one in the shape of a “B” instead, for Black Eyed Peas. They agreed. He points to the stage, lit up in neon lights and surrounded by hundreds of dancers bouncing to the beat. It is in the shape of a B but looks suspiciously like something I’ve seen before. “It’s a Beats by Dr. Dre logo!” he says, hooting with laughter. At one point in the performance, Guns N’ Roses’ guitarist Slash emerges on the stage while the dancers form the shape of a giant arrow, much like the arrow you see when using a mouse on your computer screen. The arrow points back and forth to the B. Will is now roaring with laughter. “It’s pointing to the Beats logo, dude. Look at it!”
His most ambitious commercial project, which has tied him with Coca-Cola, is unlike anything he has done before. After the success of the “Yes We Can” video he began being invited to conferences to talk about social media and how he created a video that went viral online so quickly. He attended the Clinton Global Initiative, a forum run by former US president Bill Clinton, and Google Zeitgeist, where he met senior executives at Coca-Cola.
“I said, ‘Hey, I have a concept for you. I don’t want to endorse Coke. But I have a concept which could be a new way for brands to connect with artists.’” He got the meeting and spent the next two months preparing a presentation “deck”, a bound book containing his idea. “And then I pitched it to them.”
The idea was for a joint-venture company that would use Coke waste products, such as plastic from bottles, or aluminium from cans, to create new products. This company required a new brand, so Will came up with EkoC (Coke, spelled backwards), but it will be known as Ekocycle. “We build a programme that turns the Coke brand into a conscience brand,” he says. “It rethinks relationships between Coke and the planet. It becomes the kosher to sustainability. That kosher committee that puts a stamp on beef? That’s Ekocyle.”
The key is to “become a verb”, he says. “Google became a verb. Twitter became a verb. How does Coke become a verb? Ekocycle – and you redefine the word recycle.”
The recently launched project was two years in the making and involved Will travelling to Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta for meetings with Muhtar Kent, the company’s chief executive. Ekocycle’s first two deals are with Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, whereby headphones will be produced using recycled materials; and New Era, which makes baseball caps. Ekocycle is also in talks with Swatch watches and Schwinn, which makes bicycles, about other possible tie-ups.
Word of the project leaked out and reached executives at Intel. They wanted to work with Will, and last year hired him as director of creative innovation. “They missed the boat on phones,” he says. “That doesn’t mean Intel needs to rush and hop on the bandwagon with a new phone. Someone else thought of that.” Intel has its eye on a longer-term game, he says – which is where he comes in. “There are no more dreamers. I am dreaming for Intel, to rethink what a computer is going to be.” I try to pin him down. What does he mean? “Without Intel quad processors you couldn’t make music the way we do. But what are computers going to look like in the future? That’s going to take people who study behaviour – popular culture anthropologists. A popthropologist. That’s me.”
It all sounds a bit baffling. But there is clearly something to it because the will.i.am formula keeps working. In the midst of his work with brands he has found time to partner with Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway vehicle, among other things, to judge a nationwide robotics competition, and promote science and technology to young kids. “Music isn’t cool,” says Will, sounding like an over-earnest teacher. “Science – that’s cool.” He has also launched a solo career and recently scored a number one hit in the UK, building on his ubiquitous appearances on the BBC show The Voice. With the US election coming up in November, he has another opportunity to repeat the splash he made back in 2008, but he says he is not interested in recording another viral video for Barack Obama. “The last election was all about viral. But anyone can catch a virus!”
The game in 2012 is all about inspiring people, drawing them to your cause and enlisting their help, he says, before offering up another Will-ism to go alongside popthropology. “You don’t want viral, especially in politics. You want batonable: I’ve been passed the baton and I’m so inspired I’m going to run to the nearest loved one and I’m going to pass [the message] on to them and inspire them. Everyone wants people to vote instead of being devoted. We need to be devoted.”
I wonder how he will feel if Obama loses. After all, I say, Mitt Romney has deeper pockets and is on course to outspend Obama in the campaign, carpet-bombing swing states with commercials. “Who watches TV any more?” he says, dismissively. “Young people don’t. They don’t read magazines.” Campaign money is almost irrelevant, he says, pointing to the impact of the ‘Yes We Can’ video, which cost only $2,000 to make. “Forging a connection with voters is more important.”
Our time is up but he is still talking, mimicking voices, acting out the parts in the stories he is recounting. This is a man raised by a single mother in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in America, who, not content with pop stardom, redefined how music could propel commercial products and help political candidates. His is a distinctly American story, so I ask the world’s first self-defined popthropologist where he thinks America is going, what might happen to the country if Romney beats Obama in November. He pauses for a minute – a long pause, given how long and how rapidly he has been talking. “People say Romney ran businesses and that means he should be president,” he says finally. “But America isn’t a business. America needs to be like a parent – what’s good for our kids, where are they going to school, how can you guide them? Imagine if your parent was Enron and raised you like that,” he laughs. “You don’t want that dad.”
Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s LA correspondent